Douglass C. North (November 5, 1920 – November 23, 2015)

I met Douglass C. North exactly forty-eight years ago, during the final week of 1967, when the American Economic Association was holding its annual meetings in Washington, D.C., and I went to Doug’s room at the Shoreham Hotel to be interviewed for a faculty opening at the University of Washington, where he was chairman of the department of economics. I still recall that meeting. I knocked on the door, Doug opened it, grasped my extended hand, and nearly dragged me into the room with the words, “You’re Bob Higgs, and we’re very interested in hiring you.” Needless to say, this reception was not the sort that a nervous, 23-year-old job candidate expected as he trudged from room to room to recite what his dissertation research was about and to answer all sorts of questions posed by faculty members from the hiring institutions. But Doug did not do business in the usual way, and his capacity for venturing beyond the usual modes in conducting faculty affairs—as when he offered me the job over breakfast the next morning—or in thinking about economic history played important parts in the great success that he enjoyed during his long professional life.

Others (see here and here) have presented the main outlines of Doug’s career—degrees earned, positions held, books and articles published, professional honors attained—and I will not duplicate those particulars here, but rather offer a few remarks about a man who not only hired me for my first professional job, but mentored me (sometimes making me quite angry in the process), assisted my professional development, and worked closely with me and several other economic historians during the fifteen years that I spent as a faculty member at the University of Washington, where at that time one of the world’s preeminent graduate programs in economic history enjoyed its golden age. (Doug and I both left the UW in 1983.) I plan to write about Doug at greater length for a future issue of The Independent Review.

When I met Doug, I already knew a fair amount about his work in American economic history, where he had established himself as a leader in the Cliometric Revolution, a development that began in the late 1950s in which economic historians trained as economists largely replaced those trained as historians, at least in departments of economics where economic history continued to be offered in courses and as a field of specialization for graduate students. Doug’s leadership in this movement was not without irony, however, because the hallmarks of cliometrics—use of explicit, often formally specified neoclassical economic theory and econometric testing—were not much in evidence in Doug’s own writing, which continued to be more literary and old-fashioned in its exposition, albeit often focused on the programmatic desirability of applying economic theory and of developing new theoretical frameworks that went beyond the standard neoclassical stipulations. In this way, Doug was always more an exhorter than an exemplar, more one who wrote about what economic historians should do, rather than one who simply conducted substantive research that put the new approaches on display and thereby demonstrated their power to explain historical events more effectively.

Doug’s main goal was always that of an economic theorist, rather than that of a historian. He usually wrote about grand topics—the economic growth of the United States, the rise of the Western world, economic growth on a global scale, institutions as fundamental to economic conduct and performance, and violence and social order—and he was usually content to make stylized facts serve as his explicandum. As a would-be theorist, however, he was not an originator, but an arbitrager: he generally carried ideas from economics (and sometimes other disciplines), where they were more or less familiar and hence no longer at the cutting edge of research, to history, where they were relatively unfamiliar and hence offered potential for adding substantial value to research endeavors at the existing margin. He played both sides against the middle, as it were: economists were easy on him because he was “only a historian,” and historians were easy on him because he was “only an economist.”

This observation should not be seen, however, as a damning one. Building bridges between disciplines is not easy or simple work, yet Doug accomplished this sort of bridging time and again, to the enormous enrichment of both sides of the transaction. His work on institutions and his important engagement in creating the economics subfield of New Institutional Economics, work for which he was honored with a Nobel Prize in economics (shared with Robert W. Fogel) in 1993 and with other prestigious professional recognitions, falls within the realm of intellectual arbitrage.

Another reason for Doug’s great success was his unflagging self-confidence. He never doubted his ability to identify major flaws in economic and historical preconceptions and research strategies and to state with great boldness where the economic and historical professions should go in order to understand their subjects more deeply. By placing institutions at the center of economic analysis—an objective he attained along with other major contributors such as Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson—he effected a highly significant reformation of professional sensibilities, especially among economists.

Doug’s self-confidence spilled over onto the graduate students. He made them believe that they too could make great contributions, that they could operate successfully at the upper echelons of the profession, that they could do work of great and enduring value to historians, economists, and other scholars, and—lo and behold—some of them went forth armed with Doug’s inspiration and did make important contributions! Doug enjoyed teaching both graduate and undergraduate students, and he continued to teach courses at Washington University in St. Louis long after nearly all members of his cohort had retired or died. One might be tempted to quote St. Paul about his keeping the faith, but for Doug the work never had anything to do with faith. In his eyes, he was strictly a scientist, and he had little patience with colleagues who sullied their scientific work with what he took to be ideology.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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